Pope Francis. A pope loved by the people. (ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Christianity could address political chaos
It is a rare occasion that I agree with Michael Coren but I do think he is bang on in this Toronto Star article, Perfect time for the church to show leadership. In it, he argues that in the political chaos we see arising both south of us and across the Atlantic, might be addressed by a Christianity focused on social justice issues.
The liberal Christian church has focused on social and economic justice issues for decades, beginning with the social gospel movement at the turn of the last century. Those interests expanded over the decades to include race, gender, environmental, sexual, and gender identity justice issues as well. Indeed, my United Church of Canada has been a leader in every one of those areas and I’m proud of the work we’ve bravely undertaken over our history.
Christianity most certainly had a role to play in these debacles of democracy gone wrong but it will be scored on the wrong side of history’s ledger. At least I hope it will. After all, most history is written by the victors and, in the immediate future at least, I don’t think those Coren and I are rooting for are going to be doing much writing.
Often statistics and media coverage of current events continue to mirror the decades-old assumption that “men” means everybody. Rather than exploring the distinctions between how a system responds to women and girls and how it responds to men and boys, the reflections and projections are simply presented and the lack of clarity continues without anyone even recognizing that the information is incomplete. And that, because it is incomplete, the information is actually unhelpful. We just keep it out there as those it is the latest piece of truth about whatever the issue is.
photo by morguefile user kconnors
This week, the results of a disturbing study in the US shook what we had already recognized as a tragically flawed system and further eroded confidence in it. The sexual abuse of girls is a causal factor in their future incarceration. Yep. That’s what it said. If girls are sexually abused, they are far more likely to become part of the judicial system, victims of their own victimization.
“The common justifications for girls’ arrests are minor offenses such as running away, substance abuse, and truancy—all of which are common responses to abuse,” states the study. “The connection between the sexual abuse of girls and their ultimate incarceration is not coincidental; sexual abuse is a direct, contributing cause of their detention.”
Once we face that fact, others fall into place alongside and are tragically representative of the race related aspects of these issues.
Girls of color are disproportionately locked up within the U.S. juvenile system. While youth of color comprise 45 percent of the general population of young people, girls of color account for roughly two-thirds of girls who are incarcerated. African Americans constitute 14 percent of the youth population, but account for a third of incarcerated girls, the study finds.
It is too easy to look to countries out of which come horror stories about child marriages, death caused by the pregnancy of girls too young to bear children, the suppression of access to education. With this report now on the table, I wonder how long it will take for governments to pass legislation that prevents the incarceration of victims and ensures that access to places of safety and programs geared toward both the prevention of abuse and the healing from it are mandated and funded.
A controversy has erupted over the inclusion of the Christian song “Alone Yet Not Alone” among nominees for Best Song by the Oscar Nominating Committee. Central to the controversy is the fact that the movie (of the same name) is virtually unknown inviting all kinds of queries into how the song got into the short list at all. That may have less to do with its parentage – music by Bruce Broughton and lyrics by Dennis Spiegal – than with the way it was marketed to members of the committee. Joni Eareckson Tada, the Christian music artist who recorded the song, in an interview with Christianity Today, suggests the glory be given the god God. “The God of the Bible delights in using ill-equipped, unskilled and untrained people in positions of great influence… It’s all to show that it’s not by human prowess or brassiness, but all by God’s design. I don’t know if that’s what he’s doing here, but it’s worth giving pause and considering.”
Some argue, at least the musician in my household does, that some of the best music in what I’d call the “adult contemporary” style (what do I know of music styles?) is being written in the contemporary Christian world so it may not be a surprise to those in that world that the song, despite its repetitive tune and formulaic key changes, rose to the level of interest that it has.
The Youtube short of Eareckson Tada recording the song begins with a prayer. As a quadriplegic, the singer notes that her body may not be up the challenge of singing but that she says “I don’t want to think that it can’t be done” and so prays that any issues her physical realities might be mitigated by the god God. It’s a moving prayer and her performance might, for believers, prove it was answered.
When it comes to overcoming personal challenges or crucial world issues, I don’t want to think it can’t be done, either. Not believing in a supernatural, interventionist god, however, leaves me putting my faith in humanity, fragile and idealistic as that might be. Nothing has or ever will happen in this world that isn’t the doing of raw nature or human will. Turning that will toward compassion is my job, the role I take on as a minister in the church. As a result, like many liberals and progressives in the church, If I want to enjoy the melody or abide the singing of doctrinally-infused or contemporary Christian songs, I have to translate many of their words, as I had to do at last night’s presbytery meeting. When doing so, the god God is morphed back into that biology-based empathy which, among other things (many of them toxic), we originally projected onto it. I might replace “god” with the word “love” or the bolder “we”, and claims that something “will” happen are changed to the far likelier reality that they “may” or “could” happen. I invite you to take on that challenge as you listen to the song.
I admit to a predilection against films that are thinly-veiled evangelical proselytizing but the added taint of racism in this movie raises my ire further. Based on the book Alone Yet Not Alone by Tracy M. Leininger whose forbears, mid-eighteenth century settlers “deep within frontier country,” had fled religious persecution in Germany, it is drenched in the pervasive and dangerous myth of the God-fearing settler and the blood-thirsty savage. The film’s page on the Christian Film DataBase (CFDB), the alternative to the popular secular movie database, IMDB, outlines the storyline. Barbara, the family’s eldest daughter, escapes after being “forcibly immersed” by “hostile native tribes” in “primitive foreign culture” and is “pursued by a relentless and cunning warrior.” No mention – myths tend to leave these things out – of the other side of the story or the historical facts that have since been established in regard to the thievery, lies, and broken promises made by Christian settlers throughout their invasion of aboriginal land and their destruction of native culture, and community.
The study of history now demands that we bring a multidisciplinary, critical perspective to the stories that have been handed down to us, not that we might obliterate or obscure them, but to explore their depths and breadths from myriad vantage points. It is the only way we can get close to whatever truth might be found within them. Even if Leininger had written her book with the diaries of her ancestors before her, the movie could not possibly get close to reflecting what really happened without an exploration of the interaction of settlers with North America’s first peoples and of the distortion first person accounts have on representations of reality. Neither are present and so the movie can only ever fall into the oxymoronic category of “true story.”
Now, let it not be said that I am against the fictionalizing of history in order to help us better understand it by inviting us to experience it in the way good fiction invites us to do. Les Misérables and Twelve Years a Slave belong in category of “true story” too, and they are both brilliant portrayals of “history.” Some of the details of Solomon Northup’s 1853 recounting of his years of illegal enslavement have been intentionally altered for its movie version to great effect. Still, the producers of Twelve Years a Slave have brought to their telling of Northup’s experience a contemporary knowledge of the history of slavery in America and so have created a version that, despite the alteration of its details, would be far closer to truth than it may have been had it been produced by sympathetic descendants of the cruel slave master Edwin Epps. This is not to say that those descendants would not be able to skilfully present an emotive and moving case for the travesty of infringed property rights. A version of Leininger’s family history that took into account the tragic reality of white brutality against aboriginal tribes occupying the land her family wanted to “settle” might prove equally, or perhaps even more emotionally compelling than the telling of Barbara’s story in Alone Yet Not Alone even if some of the details were known to be fabrications. But then, it wouldn’t have the effect that evangelical propaganda is supposed to have, now, would it?
The recent backlash against 13-year old Tenelle Starr, a member of the Star Blanket First Nation in Saskatchewan, who wore a hoodie with the phrase “Got land? Thank an Indian” to school, was astounding. Posts on Starr’s Facebook page by Michele Tittler, founder of a Facebook group called “End Race Based Law,” who claimed the message was racist, were so vitriolic and abusive that Starr’s family took the page down. If Tittler, whose comments have been criticized from many corners, wanted to fight racism, you’d think that she would be buying a hoodie and wearing it herselt. Indeed, she might even point out to the Oscar Nominating Committee the racism inherent in the movie from which they’ve selected their nomination. I’m afraid, however, that it is going to fall to those who understand racism is most often not against whites to thank Starr for pushing “delusional political groups” to justify themselves, to own the full reality of white history in relation to the first peoples of North America, and to keep at the work of holding their governments to account for the responsibilities and commitments of the treaties made with sovereign aboriginal nations.